Bosnian Federation Pushed toward Unity: U.S. Gets Partial Croat-Muslim Deal

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The Clinton administration pressured Bosnian Croat and Muslim leaders yesterday to promise they will merge their armies and banks and allow free movement - promises that have been made and broken before.

The United States threatened that military and other support will be withheld unless the two groups put their battles behind them and work toward a unified Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina - already 2 years old but barely functioning.

"U.S. ability to support the federation is based on implementation of the agreements reached today," Secretary of State Warren Christopher said after Muslim and Croatian leaders pledged cooperation yesterday.

A senior U.S. official acknowledged that the Croats, outnumbered 3-to-1 by Muslims in the 51 percent of Bosnia the federation occupies, are "reluctant" to work toward full unification.

"They said at the meetings, `We need to guard our identity,' " said the official, who attended the sessions yesterday at Blair House.

Pressed by the United States, which brokered the creation of the federation two years ago during the Bosnian war, the two sides agreed to merge their army high commands and unify the Defense Ministry in Sarajevo by May 31. The armies are to be fully integrated within three years.

They also agreed to establish a federation bank, privatization agency and tax administration by May 31.

And they agreed to allow the free flow of goods throughout the federation.

But the two sides were unable to agree on how to run elections in the divided city of Mostar. Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's U.N. ambassador, said his government wants Muslim refugees from the city to get absentee ballots, but the Croats, who drove them out during three years of war in the former Yugoslav republic, oppose refugee voting.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the accord that ended Bosnia's war before quitting the State Department, said in an interview yesterday, "It's up to the [federation] leadership to make the accord work."

He said the federation "needs constant support from the United States and other countries."

"The federation is more in existence now than a year ago," he said from New York, where he is an investment banker. "I described it then as a house with only a roof and holes in the roof. …